The first half of 2020 seemed to offer few reasons to smile. People isolated in place while the corona pandemic gradually spread around the world. The news was dominated by infection statistics, overcrowded hospitals, and gloomy economic forecasts.
It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that many people looked for a positive side of the pandemic. If they couldn’t go to work, eat in a restaurant, or take a vacation, at least the planet might benefit. And, indeed, there were soon reports of a kind of post-apocalyptic paradise in which flora and fauna reclaimed the earth.
“Nature is healing”
The first to enjoy their newly found freedom were dolphins. They were sighted first off Sardinia, a month later on the Bosporus.1 Soon wild pigs were promenading through Barcelona, goats through the Welsh town of Llandudno.2 Many places in the world experienced better air quality. The smog lifted in Los Angeles, and, for the first time in many years, people in India could see the peaks of the Himalayas. The clearer skies above Wuhan, where the virus first appeared, could even be observed from space.3 Across Europe, people who escaped their homes briefly to shop or walk the dog breathed cleaner air. Nature’s recovery seemed to be remarkably swift.
Some fauna news was fake. Swans didn’t return to Venice, no elephants reposed contentedly in deserted Indian tea fields.4 Many “nature is healing” posts were soon replaced by ironic memes, such as an image of electric scooters taking a bath in a park pond. Nevertheless, many people persisted in the belief that the lockdown’s inconveniences were to some degree counterbalanced by nature’s putative renewal.
An anthropogenic pause
And not without reason. Global carbon emissions, for example, fell by 17 percent, in some countries by as much as a quarter.5 Scientists soon gave the reduction of human impact on the planet an official name: anthropause.6 The term conveys that the positive environmental effects of the pandemic restrictions are real yet only temporary. Once the pandemic-induced pause is over, economic activity, traffic, and travel will increase again, as will carbon emissions.
Debate.Energy has already taken a detailed look at the pandemic’s long-term impact on the economy, the energy transition, and climate targets. But one thing is already clear: the anthropause itself won’t prevent climate change.
First, although carbon emissions are down, they’re still too high. Because the proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has continued to rise (albeit less rapidly), the greenhouse effect will continue to worsen in 2020.7 For the proportion of carbon dioxide to decline tangibly, global emissions would have to decline permanently by at least a quarter. In short, even an annual three-month lockdown wouldn’t avert global warming.
And there’s little evidence that post-crisis carbon emissions will remain lower. A study by the Helsinki-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, for example, showed that by early May air pollution in China had already exceeded the previous year’s level.8 Similarly, the German Federal Environment Agency predicts that air quality in German cities will decline to former levels as soon as all corona restrictions are lifted.
Possibly a turning point?
But even if the lockdown’s effect on the climate and the environment is temporary, it could still be a turning point for climate protection. If, that is, people use it as an opportunity for a rethink. For example, what lessons from the corona crisis may help tackle the climate crisis? What can governments do in an emergency? What sacrifices are people prepared to make? Which factors have the greatest effect on emission levels?10
Climate activist Greta Thunberg, for one, sees governments’ response to corona as a blueprint for addressing climate change. They just need to be similarly resolute.11
Perhaps the pandemic, despite its many dark sides, has one small bright side. It has offered a glimpse of how beautiful a healthier, cleaner planet can look. Ideally, these images will inspire the actions necessary to achieve a future with clean air and dolphins disporting near coasts everywhere.